I have mixed feelings as I come back from my third ALDE Congress (Alliance of Liberal and Democratic parties across Europe), this time in Amsterdam, one of the most liberal cities in the world. It’s energising to spend time with liberals from across Europe, and the largest Congress yet of 1500 people, knowing that we share values of openness, internationalism and environmentalism. Some countries are so liberal like the Netherlands and Finland, that they even have two liberal parties!
There was sad news that the UK representative on the ALDE party bureau, Baroness Ros Scott was not reelected to her position as Vice Chair. Colleagues from other parties like the FDP (Free Democratic Party) in Germany commiserated and said ALDE should look for ways to continue to collaborate with the UK. This is wise considering a sizeable proportion of the resolutions for voting and discussion by the congress were well-informed and well-drafted by the UK delegation on a range of issues from Iran and Myanmar to LGBT rights, and the Balfour Declaration.
The reoccurring theme in the conference debates focused on how we, as liberals, can combat populism and illiberal voices. Xavier Bettel, PM of Luxembourg (one of 5 liberal PMs in the EU and my favourite) said that we need to fight for our values every day. We should speak to the majority, engage with people who hold different views from us, talking about real issues that matter to people and think in dreams not fear.
However, the irony is that the fight against populism wasn’t really helped when the Congress voted through (albeit with a relatively narrow majority) wording supporting an EU army – even though they hadn’t worked out a means of actually deploying such an army; such details could be worked out over time through this ‘long term aim’. I couldn’t think of better populist fuel for Brexit! (This doesn’t stop the fact that we currently have a veto on this happening anyway, something which got lost in the Brexit debate). All the talk of enhanced security collaboration was slightly ironic too when the building security was a bit hap hazard – no bag checks with two European PMs and other big wigs in the congress – bizarre.
Despite the imperfections of the EU, I’d rather be part of a liberal group of countries that starts sanctions against the actions of illiberal members such as the current regimes in Poland and Hungary. And just to remind us of how lucky we are to live in a liberal country there was an inspiring yet depressing documentary about Boris Nemtsov a liberal in Russia who worked hard for his local region and later tipped for the presidency was assassinated by the Russian regime. Bettel rightly said that we shouldn’t take peace in Europe for granted.
I had a pang of sadness to realise that the rest of Europe is gearing up for the European Parliament elections in 2019 elections and the aim for ALDE is to be in top two parties. Nick Clegg is helping draft the manifesto. A ‘Europe for the people’ as one of the speakers said, sounds good to me, smaller, reaching out. I’d love Britain to be part of that. Unfortunately, the other parties were squabbling over how to divvy up our 70+ seats on the European Parliament… More bitter than sweet.
* Rosina Robson is Vice Chair of Richmond Liberal Democrats